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Response to China: ‘Usjaphil’

When a bigger guy like China pushes us, a puny nation, the first reflex is not to fight back because we are too small. But when push comes to shove, we rethink our position in two ways. First, in our anger and helplessness, we may want to fight back, not caring if we lose, which would be suicidal. Second, we may look for “creative” ways of fighting back.

From the onset, the Philippines has taken the second option, turning to America as the “creative” way to fight back. We want to pit a giant ally against a giant enemy, because we cannot do it ourselves. We hope to remain a fence-sitter. The problem is, we can never be a fence-sitter in this kind of geopolitical game. We are right smack in the middle of a potential war between giants, partly of our own doing. And while we are not yet in the stage where the two giants confront each other eyeball to eyeball, China continues to harass us, pushing us to take the first option of fighting back suicidally, in the hope that this would trigger the second option of the giant ally coming to the rescue.

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At present, the Philippines and Japan each has a mutual defense agreement with the United States. If the Philippines forges a pact with Japan, the triangle will be complete.

These three independent agreements can be integrated into one powerful force, what may be tentatively called “Usjaphil,” a single trilateral mutual defense pact among the three countries. This may be the beginnings of Apto, or the Asia Pacific Treaty Organization, similar to Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). When push comes to shove, creative escalation will be easy.

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The first problem with Usjaphil is inherent. While the Philippines and Japan are there in the name of defense, the United States has a different agenda. In the end, the creative solution we seek may become a bigger problem. The United States is not interested in the Spratlys or the Senkaku Islands in themselves, which for the Philippines and Japan are the prime agenda. It has a bigger ambition for military dominance in the Asia Pacific. The White House and the Pentagon call it “pivot to Asia,” an ambitious military expansion to the Asia Pacific to “surround” China. On the upside, the United States wants to make sure that the international shipping lanes will remain accessible to all, not on China’s terms and its air defense identification zone (Adiz), but on international terms, for global trade. The United States will never permit this strategic ocean corridor to be part of Chinese territory. It will go to war without a second thought to protect global trade access.

The idea of Usjaphil is at once ingenious and dangerous from the geopolitical perspective. It is ingenious because it will unite three Asia Pacific nations into one single powerful force to confront China. It is dangerous because it is the first step toward a future war, the extent of which is unpredictable and unimaginable. In truth, Usjaphil is playing with fire, a product of the push-comes-to-shove logic.

The war hawks may argue, “So what? We are headed there, anyway. Coalition or not, China’s behavior is asking for it. So it is better that we be ready now than later, or never.” But right now, the mood is nonconfrontational for the United States, and even for China, despite of its latest brinkmanship diplomacy of threats. China’s goal is to instill fear. America does not cower in fear, but we do because we have a puny slingshot against the Goliath. China’s saber-rattling hints of its despair for future sources of energy on a massive scale. Without sufficient energy, China’s economy will dwindle from a hurricane to a breeze. In other words, the nonconfrontational mood of the two giants can reverse in the blink of an eye.

China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea are now triggering a dangerous and rapid Asian arms race. Never mind us; any arms escalation on our end is puny. Think of Japan, the second largest economy in the Asia Pacific. Japan has so far been a non-nuclear sleeping giant. After World War II, the Japanese said never again would they wage war abroad. To make sure, their constitution forbids nuclear weapons, and troops abroad. But the Bushi spirit can easily resurrect because of China’s aggressions. Japan can easily change its constitution in the name of survival. When push comes to shove, Japan can become a nuclear power overnight.

Add to that the arms escalation in India, today’s largest buyer of arms, and Vietnam, and South Korea, and you have a pretty good idea of the coming storm.

Polarization into two opposite forces is the precursor to big wars, as in World Wars I and II. Right now, China’s brinkmanship is catalyzing that polarization. For some strange reason, it is mixing bread with bullets, trade pacts with Adiz, investments abroad with a multibillion-dollar weapons program. It is preparing for war while it strengthens trade ties. A contradiction, for how can trade thrive during war?

Bernie V. Lopez ([email protected]) has been writing political commentary for the past 20 years. He is also a radio-TV broadcaster, a documentary producer-director, and a former professor at Ateneo de Manila University.

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TAGS: China, defense treaty, Japan, Philippines, South China Sea, territorial dispute, United States
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